Holidays Holding onto Moments of Joy
Having lived most of my life in East Tennessee, this is the time of year that I look forward to the most. After a winter of grey skies and bare brown trees, the hillsides of the Tennessee Valley instantaneously come alive with flashes of pink and white dogwood flowers, seemingly as far as the eye can see. For two weeks in late April and early May, the whole world is aglow with beauty. I get so drunk with joy on this beauty that I want it to last forever. And then suddenly . . . it stops. The petals fall, and the life of springtime carries on.
Joy is a fascinating emotion. It’s recognized as something that is universally desirable, so much so that in North American society we chase it constantly. And yet, it means very different things to each of us. The meaning of joy, the contours, the tastes and textures of joy are not universal but particular—even private—particular to each of us.
Tomorrow is Lag Ba’Omer—the 33rd day in a 49-day process of personal exploration and reckoning that we are asked to go through between Passover and Shavuot. As the tradition goes, although the Omer is generally a mournful period, the 33rd day of the Omer is characterized by immense joy.
According to Talmudic legend, Lag Ba’Omer is the day on which five of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples survived a deadly plague. The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students. Although their great teacher was famous for preaching love and respect as the central purpose of Torah, the students died because they became disassociated from one another and did not treat each other with love and respect (bavli, Yevamot 62b). Because the plague lifted on the 33rd day, Lag Ba’Omer is a day of celebration.
In our own practice, this moment of respite, this injunction to rejoice, is reflected in a kind of ritualized reprieve. Itchy sefirah beards (for those who can grow them) give way to haircuts. Thirty-three days without live music give way to raucous celebrations and bonfires. Joy is encoded in the details of the day.
But a question arises for me as I think about the practice and purpose of Lag Ba’Omer. What is the significance of having such an intense moment of celebration in week five when we are only 2/3 of the way through our count?
As the embers of our bonfires dissipate with time, what might they teach us about tending to the flames of joy as normal life carries on?
Parashat Emor (Lev. 21:1-24:23), our parasha this week, offers important instruction for how we situate ourselves toward joy. It’s where we get core parts of the Jewish calendar—blasting the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, fasting on Yom Kippur, celebrating Sukkot with a lulav and dwelling in sukkahs, it’s where we get Shemini Atzeret—whatever that’s about, eating matzah on Passover, and this seemingly obscure command to count every day for seven weeks culminating with celebration on the 50th day when the counting is finished. Although the celebrating on Lag Ba’Omer is a rabbinic innovation, it is very much connected to the parasha.
It’s here that I think a closer look at that line about Shemini Atzeret is particularly important. Although Shemini Atzeret is months away from being on our radar, we read it in the weeks leading up to Shavuot, because it says something important about holding onto moments of joy.
As the verse goes: “On the eighth day, you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to the Lord; it is a stopping. You shall not work at your occupations.” (Lev. 23:36) If the immensely joyful holiday of Sukkot is over and holidays by their nature prohibit work, what does the Torah wants us to atzar—to stop?
Ovadiah Sforno, the great 16th century Italian exegete, picks up on this seeming redundancy and says that the concept of atzeret is more than a shabbat—it’s a warning—a warning that tells us to not get so caught up in the moment of celebration that we forget the big picture of spiritual growth. As Sforno writes, that word “atzeret” appears other places in the Tanakh, particularly surrounding joyful events. One of those joyful scenes transpires following the seventh day of Passover when B’nei Yisrael sang with Moshe after crossing the sea: “Az yashir Moshe u’vnei Yisrael et-hashira hazot Lashem vayomru leimor . , . . ” That day, Sforno writes, was an atzeret for people to put their joy from salvation aside and contemplate its spiritual significance.
Now the 50th day following salvation when we received Torah should have been an atzeret in the biblical tradition, but, Sforno says, our ancestors got too caught up in their moment of joy and ruined it with the golden calf (Exod. 32). In other words, by grasping at holding onto that feeling of joy, our ancestors missed the spiritual significance of Shavuot. This may be one of the reasons why we read about Shemini Atzeret in the weeks preceding Shavuot—to remind us that when moments of joy inevitably cease, rather than grasping at them and falling into the impossible trap of sustaining joy, we should see them as opportunities for growth and reflection.
Similarly, I think that this is what is significant about the timing of Lag Ba’Omer. For the first time in many days, we have an opportunity for ritualized happiness. Happiness that will stop before the count is complete. And yet, there is a good reason that our day of joy comes in the fifthweek of the Omer rather than during the seventh week at the end. We experience our joy, and then we reflect on our growth after joy.
This brings up another question for me. There is a sense of holding onto joy, but what if in this broader 49-day period of personal exploration, one finds joy hard to come by? In the project of contemplating completeness, how can one fulfill the mitzvah of celebration if they are struggling emotionally?
The past year has been difficult for all of us in different ways. For me, like many others, being apart from society, from many of my loved ones, and from our Hebrew College community has rendered opportunities for joy feeling distant at times. Ultimately, I am okay, and, still, counting the Omer this year has been more difficult to do with intention, mostly because I find that some days it is prohibitively overwhelming to process my current feelings let alone a new set of emotions each day and to do them in order!
Many days over the last year or so, the notion of life carrying on amidst the heightened anxiety of a pandemic has led me to feeling very overwhelmed and dwelling on decidedly unjoyful questions. Am I doing enough to protect my family from contracting this horrible virus? How will I ever be the rabbi that my congregants need if I can’t play guitar or get worried every time the Tur shows up on a source sheet when there is no translation in Sefaria? What if something bad happens? What if I never see my parents again?
All of this worrying has been draining, to say the least. By the time I pull out my Omer Counter app at night, there’s no way I’m going to be able to contemplate the day’s suggested journal prompt of “Does my discipline cripple the human spirit?”
While finding joy may be a work in progress this year, I take comfort from something else in Parashat Emor. All of the holidays in Parashat Emor, including Shemini Atzeret and the counting of the Omer, are all connected in that they are what the Torah refers to as “Mikraei Kodesh” or in translation “Callings of Holiness.” Fittingly, the “mikraei kodesh” described in Parashat Emor directly follow the holiness code of Parashat Kedoshim, which prescribes a series of mitzvot intended to connect with God individually in holiness.
Importantly, the mikraei kodesh are different, because we are communally connecting with God in an elevated state of holiness during these appointed times. That is to say that it is not incumbent upon one individual to feel complete, but rather it is a supportive process that is up to the community.
The way that a community expresses its completeness is through the mutual love and respect of its members just as Rabbi Akiva taught. And you, my dear Hebrew College community, are an incredible source of love.
I wish you all a joyous Lag Ba’Omer tomorrow. May we all find a moment of joy, an atzeret to contemplate that joy, and support in one another as we make our way toward Sinai all together.
Eric Feld is a third year student in the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College. He is also currently the Rabbinic Intern for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School Admissions Program, the Rabbinic Intern with the Hillel Council of New England, and the Assistant Director of the Genesis Precollege Program at Brandeis. He came to Boston from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he was a professional city planner prior to rabbinical school.